The Sketch: Why are we here? MPs come to terms with their meaningless lives

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The Independent Online

What's the point of being a Member of Parliament? What's the point of the House of Commons? Why are proceedings treated with such contempt, such hostility, such (at best) indifference? These satirical questions have been raised in all sincerity by MPs themselves. Edward Leigh asked the first at the Liaison Committee a few days ago. He was complaining that MPs couldn't get any greater access to government papers than journalists (rather less access, in fact).

The second and third questions came up repeatedly in Business Questions yesterday. MPs were up and down in their seats flaunting their uselessness, worthlessness and pointlessness. Personally, I thought they were being too hard on themselves.

Andrew Turner pointed out that the Prime Minister had announced his energy review to the CBI rather than to the House of Commons. Add to that an abrupt change to the business: the Government was introducing a vast Bill on the Army (375 clauses and 15 impenetrable schedules) with who knows how many pages of Explanatory Notes to be published just one full parliamentary day before the debate. General outrage. Worse yet, a debate on a wholesale restructuring of the nation's police forces had been postponed at short notice, just when everyone was wound up for it.

An empurpled Nicholas Winterton told the House that unless there was a debate on the police before Christmas then "the Government would be held to account!" He didn't say how. But his tone of voice suggested he might be waiting behind a corner to bag up a minister in a coal sack and hide him in a hole for a week. If he needs any help with the lifting (but not the digging, at my age), I'm available for this kind of public service work. I'd say Desmond Swayne is, too. "This legislature has to take back control of its business from the Government," he declared. Maybe we can tempt Owen Patterson as well. He was insistent that the "reputation of this House would be belittled" by the Government's expressions of contempt both general and specific.

Barry Sheerman complained that media coverage of select committees was collapsing. This too is true. But while newspapers no longer afford committees a daily double-page spread, the quality of questioning must bear some of the responsibility. Typically, a busy MP will read out a question prepared by the clerks and then allow an obfuscating, weasel-witness to windbag on for five full minutes before asking the next question prepared by a clerk.

On a parallel track, Don Foster brought up the perennial subject of official duplicity. We have recently learnt that a 1975 ambassador to Indonesia had sent a cable home referring to a "rampage of looting and killing", and went on to advise: "If asked to comment, I suggest we say that no information is available." The culture of government endures through every kind of social change. Some find that comforting. But they tend to be ministers.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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